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Equal Funding May Not Mean Equal Education

By Annie Gilbertson | Published 23 Dec 2011 12:19pm | comments
If the Mississippi Adequate Education Program isn't fully funded, some say students in poor areas will fall further behind their wealthy counterparts

Mississippi lawmakers are gearing up for the next legislative session. A big part of their focus will be funding for all state agencies including the largest and most costly public service - education. The joint legislative budget committee recommended giving education the same amount of money as last year.  But, MPB's Southern Education Desk reporter, Annie Gilbertson, reports stakeholders are saying hold on! Equal funding may not translate to equal, or even adequate, instruction for all public school kids.

To understand how Mississippi's education budget affects individual students, ask a teacher.

Helmick: “The problem with our district is we are one of those fast growing districts.”

Joyce Helmickteaches high school in Desoto County.

Helmick:  “You know, I think we are provided well here in Desoto County, however, if education was cut, we just don’t get the education funding that is owed to us from the high growth we have in our area.”

Students in Desoto County are entering schools at far greater numbers than they are graduating. Last year, this suburban district grew by700 students.  The year before that, they grew by 600.   While Desoto represents an exceptionally high growth area, overall, schools across the state serve more kids every year.  And that, says Helmick, is the first problem with the state giving schools the same amount of money from year to year - it often means larger class sizes and less individual student teacher interaction.

Helmick: “If I had more students in my class for example, than this child that might be, for example, autistic, than I might not be able to give that child the individual attention to get him to the level he can achieve.”

But a growing student population is accounted for in the formula used by the Mississippi Department of Education to request money every year.  It also accounts for inflation and for the inequity from district to district.  That way, when local taxes aren't enough, schools in rural Rolling Fork don't fall too far behind schools in suburban Madison.

Chairman of the House Education Committee Cecil Brown explained this formula, the Mississippi Adequate Education Program, or MAEP for short, was not recommended for full funding.

Brown: “We are still 230 million dollars short of funding MAEP, which concerns us.”

Despite concerns, Brown says justifications for tightening education spending are straightforward.

Brown: “Education has been a priority.  It will remain a priority.  There is just not enough money.”

While tax revenue is projected increase roughly 150 million dollars this year, the state is still dependent on reserve funds, one-time appropriations and special use funds to pay its bills.

But without full funding, administrators at growing schools and poor districts are wondering where they will get the cash.  Governor Haley Barbour has recommended consolidating districts and cutting administration.

Barbour: “Nationally, K through 12 schools spend 7.6% of their costs on administration.  Mississippi spends 8.8%.  If we will just reduce our administrative cost to the national average, we would save 24 million dollars a year.”

According to the U.S. Census, Mississippi is dead average when it comes to the amount spent on general education administration per student and below average when it comes to the amount spent on school administration per student.  Mississippi is, however, near the bottom of states in terms of dollars spent on each student. The states leading in spending per student, many of them in New England states, double Mississippi's investment.

Governor Barbour also said districts should make up the difference by tapping into reserves, but State Superintendent Dr. Tom Burnham says that's easier said than done.

Burnham: “And when you talk about spending reserves, those districts with  those low wealth tax bases, they just don’t have reserves.  They can’t spend what is not available to them.”

Still, Burnham said level funding was what he expected.

Burnham: “I won’t say I’m pleased, but I think given the current state of the economy and what’s going on in people’s personal lives, that that’s probably the best we can expect for education.”

The education budget is not set in stone just yet.  In a couple weeks, the state legislature will go into session. Not only is the Mississippi Department of Education requesting full funding, but will ask for money for classroom supplies, improving school buildings, implementation of the Common Core Curriculum and an academy for state superintendents.

The state legislature is expected to finalize the education budget through vote later this spring.

From the Southern Education Desk, for MPB News, I'm Annie Gilbertson.

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If the Mississippi Adequate Education Program isn't fully funded, some say students in poor areas will fall further behind their wealthy counterparts


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